Lighting up a new path for science?

The scientific method, although with variations, goes something like this: a group of scientists get together and come up with a theory. They make predictions based on this theory, and then set up an experiment to test the theory. In order to get the experiment done, funding needs to be provided. Without having any money supporting it, it doesnt happen. At least, that is how its been since the 1930′s.

In the UK, science has been funded by industry, by the European Research Councils (ERC) and by Research Councils UK (RCUK), which includes EPSRC, BBSRC, MRC, STFC etc. These funding bodies are allocated a certain amount of money by the governments which they then get to distribute. In order for a scientist to get some of this money, they need to apply for it. So there is fierce competition for this money as it is in limited supply. But this might all be changing. As funding is in limited supply, scientists are now starting to look elsewhere for their support.

There has been a lot of talk recently about a new project in California: the glowing plant project. It is the goal of a group of DIY Biologists to create a plant that glows in the dark. Using synthetic biology, the scientists are going to insert two genes: a gene called luciferase (which fireflies have to make their butts glow), and another called luciferin (which dont work without eachother) into the DNA of a plant, and then hopefully produce a plant that glows.

The project has admirable goals: if these plants can be grown, they could replace our street lamps, lighting our way through the dark using renewable energy. Put sunlight in, get glowing plants out.

In order to fund this ambitious project, the group have used Kickstarter, which relies on the public to fund their project. In return for funding, they public will receive the seeds of the plant, when they become available.

At the time of writing, the group, led by technical entrepeneur Mr Antony Evans, has raised $389,118 towards a goal of $65,000 which they originally intended to raise. This is pretty impressive ,considering they only put the word out there a few months back, and they’ve still got 12 days to go! And in the first 24 hours they raised $40k. This is a phenomenal amount of support.

But with all the oomph behind the project, there are those that don’t think this project will work. Even the Kickstarter project page says “We hope to have a plant which you can visibly see in the dark (like glow in the dark paint), but don’t expect to replace your lightbulbs with version 1.0.” During a conversation in the pub, someone said that you would need a plant almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower. The group itself calculated that (although with many assumptions) a plant would need to cover a ground area of 10meters (nearly 33feet) by 10meters, just to be able to provide as much light as a street lamp.

To get a plant to glow however, it only one of the aims this project has. The other part is more controversial: to increase the publicity for do-it-yourself synthetic biology and to “inspire others to create new living things.” Basically, to get those who are curious and interested to think outside of the box. Research doesn’t have to happen within labs anymore, garage biologists, DIY biologists and biohacker groups are coming up all over the world.

So what makes this an interesting project is that it is publicly funded, which means the public are supporting this, and are behind it; they have faith in it. So does that mean they have faith in synthetic biology? And in DIY biologists?

Effectively, this is a GM project that is aiming to genetically modify the genes of a plant. A living entity that is a vital part of the planet’s life. As a result, GM hasn’t had the greatest amount of support from the public in the past. So why the change in attitude? Why, all of a sudden is a GM averse public so supportive of genetically modified plants? It wasn’t long ago that GM wheat was getting bad press, and even still it isn’t getting much back up. So what makes this project different? Is it because the plants won’t be eaten by humans, so there is no direct negative impact on us? Or is it because it is doing us some good – it is ticking the box of renewable energy?

Another thing to consider is that it could change the way science is funded: could it change the way science is done?

If qualified scientists can get public support by side-stepping the research funding councils in the US, could the same thing happen here? By going through a kick-starter programme, they have to make sure that the science they want to get funded is of interest to the public. Not only that, it needs to be transparent, open-source, and attractive. This way the public will know what they’re money is going into, rather than when it is spent by the funding councils using our tax money. It also means they would have to frame their science in a different way, making it look like an attractive investment where the funders get something back in return, other than just the knowledge that is gained through research.

Asking the public directly to fund their projects has other consequences. These scientists all of a sudden have a much larger responsibility of making sure they deliver. By promising those who have funded it certain products, they public will expect them. They can be held directly accountable for their actions by by-passing the funding system. Does this open the doors for all scientists to get their projects funded by the public, if they are in the public interest?

I mentioned transparency ealier: by showing the public what the scientists are going to do with their money, the public will be more likely to trust them. But do they know what they are trusting them to do? Just because the science is on the web-page, doesn’t mean the public will understand it. This raises more questions about knowledge. This glowing plants project is being funded by the public, who dont fully understand how synthetic biology works. So, could scientists exploit this knowledge deficit of the public to fool them into supporting science? Stephen Hilgartner described this particular issue well in his 1990 paper: that the deficit model gives scientists the epistemiological right to print money.

And what if they dont deliver? Will this change the public perception of science again? Will the public lose faith in scientists, if their money is spent and visibly wasted on something that cant happen?

Image credit: Glowing plant project, Kickstarter

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